Mr. D’s History Bookshelf # 7: The Boisterous Sea of Liberty

 “The boisterous sea of liberty is never without a wave.” ~ Thomas Jefferson

Rarely did a teaching workshop produce such a valuable resource as my first.

Around my second year teaching, I was at a low ebb.  I had a terrible class, nothing was getting done, and my room was a mess.  Curiously, it was at this point that I signed up for my first Teaching American History grant seminar.  There was little else I was doing on Saturday mornings in the fall, anyway. 

It would be an experience that changed me forever, as a teacher and as a historian.

Over the course of five years, I have listened to incredible history professors, sitting with like-minded teachers who also felt frustrated in the current educational environment.  Furthermore, the TAH program helped to ensure that the concepts learned could be applied to any classroom–and that means ANY level, from elementary to high school.

TAH was also a fountain of resources, books, videos and classroom materials.  Yet none would be more cherished than a black-covered book, now dog-eared and bookmarked to death.  It has become, quite literally, my Bible in the classroom.

In 1998, distinguished Yale professor David Brion Davis, along with University of Houston historian Steven Mintz, co-edited an anthology of primary sources called The Boisterous Sea of Liberty: A Documentary History of America from Discovery through the Civil War.  The book is much more than an anthology–it is exactly as the title states: a history of the United States as told through the primary resources of the period. 

 One of the most important movements in history education, at least at the K-12 level, is the move away from scripted textbooks (at least a lessened reliance on them) and an increased emphasis on primary documents: the artifacts from the past that give a window to history without the filter of the textbook editor or the teacher.  Davis’ introduction says as much in that:

“Nothing can overcome apathy, boredom, or contempt for the past as quickly and effectively as primary sources.  Eyewitness accounts of a battle or bitter legislative debate can have the power of a fax or e-mail just received, evaporating the gap between past and present.  Such sources enable readers to identify with men and women long dead and to suddenly understand how decisions made in the past continue to haunt our lives.  No less important, as we learn to listen to these voices we gain a growing sense of the complexity and contingency of past events.” ~ David Brion Davis, Boisterous Sea of Liberty, page 1 “Introduction”

Yet this book could be simply a set of primary documents bond together.  Thankfully Davis and Mintz included their own commentary and created a straightforward, dense, comprehensive narrative of the American story, using the primary sources as a the driving force. 

This is where the “textbook” aspect of this book is done right: often, teachers lack the context or background knowledge behind such famous documents as the Mayflower Compact, Columbus’ Letters to the Sovereigns or the Emancipation Proclamation (all included in the book, by the way).  Davis and Mintz provide a refreshingly nuanced, evenhanded view of events that doesn’ t create sacred cows, yet won’t necessarily jump on the Howard Zinn-esque revisionist bandwagon.

One example of this is their treatment of Columbus’ first voyage.  In their introduction to the Columbus letters, Davis and Mintz mince few words: the European encounter decimated the indigenous populations of America, raped their resources and introduced enslaved African labor in large quantities.  Yet they end this passage with the following:

“Columbus’s (sic) first voyage of discovery also had another important result: It contributed to the development of the modern concept of progress.  To many Europeans, the New World seemed to be a place of innocence, freedom and eternal youth.  The perception of the New World as an environment free from the corruptions and injustices of European life would provide a vantage point for criticizing all social evils.  So while the collision of three worlds resulted in death and enslavement in unprecedented numbers, it also encouraged visions of a more perfect future.” ~ David Brion Davis & Steven Mintz, Boisterous Sea of Liberty, page 32 “First Encounters”

The same instinct pervades the book in other areas.  The concluding discussions about the end of the Civil War, for example, involve a frank exploration into the shifting patterns of race and class distinctions in the South following the conflict.  To be sure, Davis and Mintz argue, the new order did not necessarily mean complete freedom.  Blacks would be restricted in public places, in employment and in the exercise of their new constitutional rights to vote in elections.  Furthermore, many rural Blacks were trapped in the sharecropping system that bound them to the land of their former white overlords.  Yete even here there is a glimmer of hope:

“Nevertheless, the sharecropping system did allow freedmen a degree of freedom and autonomy greater than that experiences (sic) under slavery.  As a symbol of their newly won independence, freedmen had teams of mules drag their former slave cabins away from the slave quarters into their own fields…incredibly, about 20 percent of African AMericans in the South managed to acquire their own land by 1880.  Real gains had been won, though full freedom and equality before the law remained unfulfilled promises.” ~ David Brion Davis & Steven Mintz, Boisterous Sea of Liberty, page 559 “Toward Reconstruction”

This approach is perfect for average readers who see this book as a narrative that explains, guides and instructs the reader on the events, concepts and ideas of American history.  As an educator, the real treasure is the primary documents themselves.

The commentary is important and very well written.  However, the primary sources are what make this book an integral part of any history classroom.  Most of the primary quotes I use in this blog, if not all, come from Boisterous Sea of Liberty (at least those quotes pertaining to before the Civil War).  These documents have been printed and reprinted and recopied and reused ad infinitum for classroom exercises, tests, lesson plans, assessment portfolios and even professional development.

Even in the classroom itself, Boisterous Sea of Liberty holds a certain allure.  My students always know that when I whip that book out, something important, shocking or interesting will be shared today.  In fact, they have given it a nickname: “The Book of Sadness”, since I have a tendency to use it for tragic or horrible events. 

Case in point: the Schenectady massacre of 1690.  During the ongoing wars between the French and English, the New York settlement of Schenectady was attacked by French soldiers and their native allies.  Robert Livingston provides a particularly grueseome account, full of wailing victims and children’s brains getting bashed.  The scene is hard to read, even for a teacher well divorced from the situation.  Yet this account allows students to live their history in all its gory details.

 Boisterous Sea of Liberty has become a backbone of my curriculum design, lesson planning and assessment.  The results are truly remarkable: students are, often for the first time, thinking critically not only about events, but the authorship and authenticity of primary accounts.  My kids are making important connections between historical events and current situations in our world. 

Most important for me, though, is that for the first time, my students are actually excited about social studies.  It stimulates their brains, forces them to think, encourages them to look for their own solutions.  Primary sources have “emancipated” students from the shackles of textbooks and test prep workbooks.

Boisterous Sea of Liberty is a must-have, in fact one of the few must-haves that a social studies teacher should own.  I can’t imagine teaching without it–and neither will you.

1 Comment

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One response to “Mr. D’s History Bookshelf # 7: The Boisterous Sea of Liberty

  1. twf

    Toussaint L’Ouverture is a prominent slave in the history of the slave trade. He rose up and fought the French oppressors. You can see a clip of his last moments in prison from the film “The Last Days of Toussaint L’Ouverture” – a short film – http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2468184/

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